Līgo 2020: Lielvārde and Lāčplēsis

Līgo 2020: Lielvārde and Lāčplēsis


Last year, around this time, Rita and I were returning from our honeymoon in Italy. We spent a quiet Jāņi on June 23 in Vilnius, Lithuania waiting for our bus back to Riga.

This year, I was happy to stay in Latvia for a more traditional and joyful celebration. Although with the current Covid situation, everything is just a little bit different, isn’t it?

For those of you who do not know, most northern European countries have some midsummer celebration on St. John’s Day, from June 23-24. Latvia takes it very seriously, and this year we had a 3-day vacation.

We decided to rent a car from  Saturday through Thursday. We spent the official solstice in Misso, Estonia on a quiet trip across Vidzeme, Latvia making stops in Priekuļi, Ape, Alūksne, Ranka, Vecpiebalga and Sigulda.

Then, after resting up a bit on Monday, we traveled to Lielvārde for a traditional Līgo celebration with Dainis and Valda, a mathematician and an Armenian translator, respectively.  Let us just say they are very smart and kind people who invited us to their country house to enjoy Jāņi! Meanwhile, Max enjoyed a Jāņi celebration in Smiltene with friends.


Lielvārde is a small Latvian city of about 11,000 people about an hour southeast of Riga along the beautiful Daugava River. Its biggest claim to fame is that it is the home of Lāčplēsis, Latvia’s epic hero made famous in a literary work by Andrejs Pumpurs in the 19th century. Lāčplēsis is also called the “Bear Slayer” because when he was a boy, he killed a bear with his bare hands. His power came from his bear ears. It is a strange and wonderful story that reminds me a lot of Beowulf.

Uldevena Castle

When we met Dainis and Valda, they took us around Lielvārde to see the sites. We began at Uldevena Castle (Pils) where we had a guided tour by Agris Liepiņš, the artist who designed and built this historically based wooden castle (as well as also illustrating a version of the Pumpurs poem). He was dressed in an authentic historical costume, and his wife was also there in her beautiful folk outfit. The tour was mostly in Latvian, but Rita did some translating on the fly. The main point was that this wooden castle is not based on a single historical example, but more of a collage of what one might have been like. He also pointed out several movie tropes that simply are not accurate when they portray battles. He kept referring to Mel Gibson. Mel seems to be the poster boy for international movie inaccuracy. One big difference, Agris explained, is that none of the soldiers in these forts would have had many teeth left. For some reason, that detail stayed with me. He also said that fire arrows wouldn’t work because the structure would have been coated with clay to prevent fires.

Inside the walls of the fortress, Liepiņš has built replica houses. I really liked the king’s house with its life-sized figures standing in front. The point is that people were smaller back in the 12th century, so all the doors to the buildings were very uncomfortably short as were the ceilings. Agris has also created caricatures of real Latvian kings including the famous Namejs and Kaupo, who is considered a bit of a villain for selling out the Livonians to Christianity back in the day.

Speaking of religion, I also liked the nod to Latvian mythology in the center of the fortress. A giant oak tree stands with images of the three deities, also rendered by Liepiņš: Dievs, kind of an overseeing fatherly figure; Laima who represents fate; and Māra, mother earth.

Note: You will see the swastika or “fire cross” depicted in Latvian mythology. It goes way back, well before the symbol was given a new meaning by the Nazis.

One really cool historical bit was the fact that when they were digging near the fort, they found a stash of silver coins from the 1500s. It is fascinating to think about how money became a thing, and these coins, from all different regions of Europe. Dainis bought me one of the coins as a gift depicting a German Holy Roman Emperor, Otto III. I had no idea that was even a thing!

We finished the tour by climbing the walls and towers (something the boy I once was would have loved!), and then exiting through the back to see the Lithuanian horse and the Daugava river slowly meandering on a lovely summer’s day. The grand finale was when Agris lit a giant pile of pine branches and needles on fire to give it a nice midsummer celebration feeling.

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Lielvārdes Park

After we finished our tour, Dainis and Valda invited us to visit the nearby park dedicated to the Latvian Epic Hero, Lāčplēsis. I was a bit tired and hungry by now, but Latvian adventures always seem to be worth the time, so off we went.

This park is a few kilometers away from Uldevena, but is also situated on the Daugava river. The road to the park winds through some old block-style buildings and is adjacent to a church and school.

First, we saw three landmarks dedicated to Lāčplēsis. The most impressive was this giant 80 ton boulder that is said to be his bed, next to that is his 20 ton blanket, and finally a giant felled oak tree that is said to be where the witches in the story lived and partied.

Dainis used to be a Lutheran pastor, and he happened to be a preacher at the very church on the grounds of the park.

We then walked toward the ruins of the real castle in Lielvārde. Along the way, we walked through this unexpectedly amazing sculpture garden created by Ēriks Delpers. Giant trees have been painted black and carved into figures from the epic poem. Lāčplēsis himself stands with his love, Laimdota in front of the picturesque Daugava. A giant wolf and dragon hide among the trees. And right next to the ruins of the castle, is the very cliff where Lāčplēsis struggled with the Black Knight and died.

Spoiler: they chop his ears off to take away his bear-strength power… but he still fights to the bitter, tragic end.

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Cliff Selfie


After a wonderful walk through the park, we drove to a meadow near Dainis and Valda’s house to pick some flowers for Jāņi crowns (ziedu vainags).

Finally, we were ready to celebrate this holiday in style. We brought some food, and they had some food. Dainis and I fired up the grill for some chicken šašliks while Valda and Rita made their crowns. Hanna enjoyed romping through the garden and chasing away their cat (which I never saw).

I brought a nice variety of beers from the Beerfox (Callous Alus), and we started the party by singing a traditional “Līgo” song.

Then we crowned the Jāņi father, Dainis, and mother, Valda.

We went for a walk through the countryside near their house and saw the most beautiful sunset at about 11:30 p.m.

Then, we lit the Jāņi fire (jāņuguns) and hopped over it. This was not nearly as dramatic or spectacular as some of the Jāņi fires we had in Omaha, but it was enough to get the blood pumping.

Sadly, we did not make it to morning, which is the tradition. This means that we will feel sleepy all summer long, and so far this superstition is proving to be absolutely accurate!

If you are interested in learning more about Jāņi and the Latvian language, this is a new youtube video by Germane that I have been subscribing to for a couple months now. She is a delightful teacher!

All told, it was a rather quiet, educational, and fascinating Jāņi celebration. Dainis told me a bit about his current work, trying to unpack some high-level geometric theories of a Latvian mathematician from the 1930s. He also showed me his home office and the standing desk he built and explained how he started training for half-marathons only after he retired. I feel like there is still hope and time for me! Thanks to both of them for hosting us and sharing a nice traditional Jāņi in these trying times!






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